You have to hand it to Melrose, 2014 has been a great year for the club. An unlikely but ultimately well-deserved Prem One title was followed by an emphatic sweep of the Kings of the Borders series, concluded on Saturday with a fourth consecutive series win at the Earlston Games. By the time they play out the two remaining sevens tournaments (at Selkirk and Jed respectively) they will have played 42 senior fixtures in all competitions this season.
This is, to put it bluntly, a huge undertaking for a semi-professional/amateur side. They are far from alone, both Gala and Edinburgh Accies have also topped the 40 plus mark this season to name but a few. With the various tournaments and league requirements it is now not an uncommon volume of games for club sides at that level. To put this in perspective, Edinburgh Rugby, a professional side with a squad of over 40, full time professional players will complete less than 30 fixtures in all competitions this season.
There is an excellent article in The Scotsman today from the ever astute Allan Massie in which he accurately nails the key differences between the club game and the professional game and also notes the blurred lines between semi-professional and professional players and their job remits. Ironically, it would seem, in Scottish club rugby the major difference appears to be that once you become a full-time professional rugby you appear to play 50% less rugby than you do as a part-time amateur player.
Within the amateur club game, especially at a lower level (and/or reserve team level) there is a huge problem in fulfilling these bloated fixture lists. Below the National Leagues (Level 2) this season, there have been 29 teams deducted points for failing to fulfil league fixtures this season. What makes that figure even more extraordinary is that, generally (depending on the particular Championship Committee) these clubs are only deducted points after a few warnings and that the figure of postponed or cancelled games is, in fact, far higher. For example, Gala YM RFC have still to complete their season (as of 3rd May)and are in serious danger of losing their East Regional Division 3 status after cancelling their final fixture against Queensferry RFC a total of six consecutive occasions for various (and often valid) reasons.
There is a big decline in adult playing numbers in Scotland. I don’t care what the SRU statistics show. There is a huge difference between numbers of registered players and numbers of players who can actually commit to 20-30 games a season home and away plus training. The volume of postponements and points deductions tell that story themselves as do some of the results. Where 100 point beatings used to be a rarity they are becoming more regular as teams are forced to field weak sides or start games with less than 15 players to adhere to fixture requirements. The game in general is struggling to cope with its own demands.
“Ironically, it would seem, in Scottish club rugby the major difference appears to be that once you become a full-time professional rugby you appear to play 50% less rugby than you do as a part-time amateur player.”
How do I know this? Because I play in these leagues for my hometown team of Langholm RFC and (because I now live in Edinburgh) I’m also dual registered with Stewarts Melville FP RFC. On a weekly basis I either play in East Division Regional League One or Reserve League National One and most seasons I see the struggle to field teams both in my respective clubs and others around our leagues first hand. I’m by no means a good rugby player and at 37 I should be playing veterans or social rugby but due to a universal lack of front row (and players in general) my services are in relatively high demand.
So, what are the answers? You’ll be surprised to find out there is no easy fix. Personally, I would like to see two things. Firstly, we need to see an acceptance of the situation by The SRU, the Championship Committees and the clubs (collectively). There is far too much ‘head-in-the-sand, fingers-in the-ears, la-la-la I’m not listening’ going on. Whether that is to hide targets for growth of the game or out of misplaced pride, the situation needs addressed and the denial put to the side. Yes some clubs are thriving and have great numbers but as a collective whole Scottish Club Rugby is suffering and that needs recognised.
If acceptance of the situation is the first stage, then action is the next step. The second thing I would like to see if much more flexibility and co-operation between clubs and players. When you have a situation that a lower league game is cancelled because a team can’t raise 15 players or don’t have a front row then those remaining 25-30 players should be free (where possible) to play for another team. Priority should be given to league fixtures over reserve games and higher leagues over lower ones but ultimately the dwindling numbers of players need to be utilised better. That way we don’t have players who want to play losing out and becoming disenfranchised with the sport in general and we also have less postponed fixtures.
In this day and age of social media there should be few barriers to managing a central hub or repository for players and clubs to register interest in playing for another club at short notice. For example, should a Cartha Queens Park RFC reserve game be cancelled due to lack of players then those remaining players (on both sides) should be free to turn out for Bishopton RFC or GHK RFC or whoever needs players without fear of reprieve (such as St Boswells RFC). I’m aware of the implications of player registration for insurance purposes etc but surely at a lower level dispensation can be made for ‘emergency loans’ (not just limited to front row) or for players to be dual registered to an SRU backed and administered centralised ‘player repository’?
Whatever happens, something needs to be done. If we are to maintain our volume of fixtures and clubs then we (as a sport) need to be a bit cleverer about how we make the most of limited resources and player base. The much vaunted ‘semi-professional’ top tier and regional academy plans proposed (and re-considered) by the SRU also needs to help address the deeper problems in the club game. If it doesn’t we will sleep walk into a situation where we cannot sustain our rugby clubs and whole leagues will have to be consolidated leading to less rugby in our communities. Many have said that to fix Scottish Rugby we need to start at grass roots level and work our way up. If we want the amateur club rugby in Scotland to remain as the vibrant, competitive and proud game it is now then we need to act soon.